Orwell talk – May 1st 2013, Café Create
I want to deal with the final years of Orwell's life, not the details of his existence, but the significance of his literary output. I will draw out some of the hidden politics of Orwell, positions that he takes which are slightly contradictory and some which have relevance for today.
Orwell opposes the war until it begins, at which point he sees the necessity of participating wholeheartedly in the war effort.
He works for the BBC, fighting the war with words. Though he is in this period an opponent of fascism and the official Communist Parties, he turns down invitations to talk at anti-Soviet events on the grounds that the organisers do not also oppose the actions of the British Empire.
His most memorable works in the remainder of his life are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
These are bleak works, used during the Cold War as weapons of struggle.
Even after the Cold War, I was taught Animal Farm at school as a warning against efforts to reduce inequality and extend democratic control from below.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. Yet within the story of individuality crushed by authority, the protagonist Winston Smith identifies the source of resistance: “hope lies with the proles”.
Like Orwell, Winston Smith does not see himself as part of the working class – even though he too must work for a living. As a journalist, he perhaps has a greater degree of autonomy over how his work is done, in an era in which access to knowledge was more restricted than today, he had skills which were not abundant.
So Orwell is detached from the organised labour movement – he writes very little about industrial disputes, and only advocates general strike action in Britain in defence of the Spanish revolution.
His experience of fighting in Spain, and the self-activity of working people in Barcelona as they took over the management as well as the running of society had a lasting impact on his political perspective.
In the early forties, he writes The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.
In this essay, he argues that the winning of the war is a necessary but secondary goal to winning a revolutionary war against Britain's ruling class.
He puts forth his position on national identity and the means by which a socialist movement can transform Britain into a democratic society through appeals to nationality. Orwell writes,
“Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.”
Orwell imagines that a movement for socialism will appeal to the patriotism of those who do well out of the existing class system. He thinks it unlikely the monarchy or the House of Lords will be abolished, the priority will be changing the actual social relations rather than eradicating symbols of the old order.
So he's not denying the class division which exists – and he realises the basis upon which it was established. He writes in Tribune in 1944:
“Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
Also in his Tribune column during 1944, he writes of Karl Marx in the same year:
“It could be claimed [...] that the most important part of Marx's theory is contained in the saying: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ But before Marx developed it, what force had that saying had? Who had paid any attention to it? Who had inferred from it — what it certainly implies — that laws, religions and moral codes are all a superstructure built over existing property relations? It was Christ, according to the Gospel, who uttered the text, but it was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion — which, of course, is why they hate him so much.”
In The Lion and The Unicorn, Orwell advocates taking the banks, land, railways, mines and major industries into public ownership. Income differentials should be limited, he says – the maximum wage would be ten times the minimum wage. The education system should be democratised, opened up to access on the basis of merit rather than wealth.
Internationally, Orwell wants the British Empire to be brought to an end, instead a federation of socialist states. He wants it to be
“freed not so much from the British flag as the money-lender, the dividend-drawer, and the wooden-headed British official.”
For Orwell, what exists in England, like any other nation, is the potential power of its inhabitants. If unlocked, it would result in a revolution of sorts; as he says in The Lion and The Unicorn, far from violent unrest, a revolution means a fundamental shift in power.
For having won the struggle to become citizens rather than subjects of the state, what remains is the struggle for ordinary people to gain economic citizenship, to dare more democracy.
Orwell says of democracy, “to preserve is always to extend”. But there's a real sense in The Lion and The Unicorn, that he's overlooking the organisational forms which can do this.
For example, his view of socialism is that the state will own the means of production and that in this way workers will identify their interests with that of the state. But how is this to be expressed?
Having written of the dangers of dictatorial rule, of the crushing bureaucracy of the party-state, Orwell seems quite complacent in The Lion and The Unicorn. It is as if he assumes the English genius cannot become subject to authoritarian government – he forgets that the advances in democratic rights in the UK were as a result of the strength of the working class and its ability to win reforms through collective action.
Orwell recognises the restrictions which are imposed on a supposedly “free” press:
“All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash.”
It is surprising that Orwell does not seem to have a vision of how a free press would function in a socialist society. If the commissioning of journalism is affected by the commercial considerations, how could this constraint be lifted? Orwell worked for the BBC during the war, but the problem with the state broadcaster is – who commissions the commissioners? Public service journalism as it exists involves a distance from the public, who are unable to put issues on the agenda – as we've seen recently with the BBC's lack of coverage of NHS privatisation policies.
Orwell was a critical supporter of the Labour government which was elected in 1945. As mentioned before, Orwell wrote for Tribune, the paper of the more radical wing of the Labour Party at that time, led by Nye Bevan. As health minister, Bevan played a leading role in establishing the National Health Service. Also in the postwar period, a number of utilities and industries were taken into public ownership. But these state-owned enterprises were structured much as they had been as capitalist firms, often with the same people on the board of directors.
Workers did not appoint the top bosses, they did not have representation in corporate governance. Neither did consumers. This was, as Orwell had described it well before anyone else, “state capitalism”. The state was bailing out unprofitable sectors of the economy which capitalists did not want to invest in directly.
Executive incomes were not limited within enterprises, as they are in the Mondragon co-operatives of contemporary Spain, but income inequality was dealt with through the taxation system. Britain did not get a statutory minimum wage until the 1990s.
Perhaps if Orwell's output towards the end of his life is depressing it's because of the distance from the optimism of the Spanish Civil War – in Animal Farm, the veiled satire of the Russian revolution and the bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union and in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which imagines a one party state in Britain, or Airstrip One, also lent itself to being used by Cold Warriors.
But as is clear, Orwell's appropriation by those fighting the Cold War depended on his absence – for if he was alive, he would have something to say about criticism of Communism without a similar criticism of capitalism.
Orwell was disappointed that the Labour government was not more radical in transferring wealth and power. He felt that it was as if the Conservatives were still running the country. And they were – without democratic control in corporate governance, the people running the big businesses which dominate markets will be seeking to conserve the power of vested financial interests rather than empower workers and consumers.
It may have been possible for the ruling classes of what's called “the West” to proclaim for much of the twentieth century that capitalism was wedded to representative democracy, but we now see in Western Europe that election results differ greatly from what electors expect – in Greece and Italy, technocratic governments have been imposed to implement austerity cuts. Democracy being rolled back in the interest of big business profits.
Looking back on the Spanish Civil War, Orwell writes in 1943:
“In 1936 it was clear to everyone that if Britain would only help the Spanish Government, even to the extent of a few million pounds’ worth of arms, Franco would collapse and German strategy would be severely dislocated. By that time one did not need to be a clairvoyant to foresee that war between Britain and Germany was coming; one could even foretell within a year or two when it would come. Yet in the most mean, cowardly, hypocritical way the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. Undoubtedly they were, and yet when it came to the final showdown they chose to stand up to Germany. It is still very uncertain what plan they acted on in backing Franco, and they may have had no clear plan at all. Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.”
Orwell would have understood perfectly what has been going on in Britain since the seventies and what is going on now across Western Europe: the attempt to reverse the gains the working class made in the post-war period. And in particular, since the financial crisis that started in 2008, there is an attempt to pass the costs of systemic failure onto working people.
The rationale for austerity is that cutting public spending will boost GDP growth. There's now no evidence for this – however, there is evidence that what has been growing is the rate of return to private investors. So the British ruling class isn't stupid – and the ruling classes of states around the world which are also imposing austerity aren't wicked either.
I think if Orwell were alive today, he would be arguing for solidarity with the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland, who are facing a reduction in living standards more extreme than here in Britain. He would be travelling to southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to report on movements for political and economic democracy.
Perhaps if he had lived, Orwell would have written novels which gave us “real utopias” – which presented fictionalised accounts of struggles for a better life. He may have been able to do in literature what Ken Loach has done in cinema and television – tell stories of ordinary people taking collective action to assert their interests.
Today, the distance between a journalist or novelist and their readers is not as great as in the past. Advances in telecommunications such as social media has closed the gap between paid commentators and opinionated amateurs on the internet.
I would be asking Orwell – why not give us sequels to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in which there are, if not “happy endings”, but which have narratives which offer hope to ordinary people that they can change the world, they can work together to make life better. These would not be books without conflict – for there will always be disagreements and debates, heated arguments and heartache – but books which engaged the reader with optimism.